Coming Together to End Food Waste: a Recap of the Austin Zero Food Waste Forum

Coming Together to End Food Waste: a Recap of the Austin Zero Food Waste Forum

The Compost Pedallers are all about community. You probably already know that our main function is to connect homes and businesses with local green spaces to keep organic scraps out of the landfill, build healthy soil, and grow more food right here in our neighborhoods. But aside from pedalling away your green bin, we’re also working to bring like-minded folks together in order to change the conversation about waste here in Austin. That’s why we love participating in events like this past Friday’s Zero Food Waste Forum.

The Zero Food Waste Forum was a day of learning, collaborating, and big ideas presented by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability, Austin Resource Recovery and The forum’s participants, many of whom are based here in Austin, came from all parts of the food system- from food service to organizations that feed the hungry to urban foraging- to swap strategies for minimizing food waste and changing the way we see the things we’re throwing in the trash.

The day began with an introduction from Stephanie Barger, the founder and executive director of the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council. The USZWBC serves as a resource and facilitator for businesses of all sorts working towards achieving zero waste (or keeping waste out of landfills through careful planning, reusing, recycling, and composting of resources) and embracing other Earth-friendly business practices. Prior to Friday’s forum, the USZWBC led a series of workshops here in Austin for businesses looking to begin working towards zero waste or earn a Zero Waste Business Associate certification. Next up was Edwin Marty, Austin’s Food Policy Manager. Edwin’s position was created about a year ago, modeled after similar posts in cities like San Francisco and Seattle. His mission is to draw up a plan for building a sustainable, well-organized and just food system for the City- needless to say, his is a pretty important job. His introduction focused on defining what exactly a city’s food system is and where food waste factors in- and can be eliminated. This led into an introduction to the zero waste food movement, led by Jordan Figueiredo of Jordan’s website is an excellent resource for news, tips, and innovative ideas regarding food waste- and with the mission statement “To end food waste, hunger and climate change. All at the same time,” it’s pretty clear that Jordan and the Pedallers think a lot alike. Jordan is one of the most prolific anti-food waste activists out there- in addition to, he’s also the man behind one of our favorite Twitter accounts, “Ugly Fruit and Veg.” After Amanda Rochlich, Austin’s Environmental Programs Coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, shared a few words about the state of the zero food waste movement in Austin, the first panel of the day began.

Naturally, the first panel revolved around food waste prevention. This is a key tenet of the zero food waste movement that involves getting to the sources of food waste in order to lessen the need for food recovery and post-consumer reclamation (like composting). The panel, moderated by Jordan, was comprised of Austin Resource Recovery’s Woody Raine, sustainability consultant Tom Wright (who works with Whole Foods), the Zero Waste Network’s Thomas Vinson, LeanPath president and CEO Andrew Shakman, and our friend Joshua Blaine, who is the manager over at in.gredients. Each speaker brought a unique perspective, as well as solutions that ranged from technological (the incredible waste tracking systems being built by LeanPath) to behavioral (when in.gredients stocks only local and seasonal produce, customers modify their buying habits in order to adapt to what’s available). Most of the speakers focused on eliminating food waste at its main source- in restaurants and grocery stores. According to Andrew Shakman of LeanPath, between 4 and 10% of food in the service industry is thrown into the garbage before it reaches the plate. And by tracking what they throw away, food service businesses can reduce pre-consumer waste by about 50%- and yes, save money too. Preventing food waste, both pre- and post-consumer, requires a whole lot of education- people have to understand that food is a valuable commodity that is not only wasted, but is also harmful to the Earth when thrown into a landfill- but isn’t impossible. With a waste diversion rate of over 99%, in.gredients is an amazing example of a true zero waste food business. Each panelist in the Food Prevention section spoke with a hopeful tone and had plenty of success stories to share- Whole Foods, for example, has educated thousands of team members about waste diversion and is now a well-oiled machine for food waste prevention and recovery.

After source reduction (preventing food from being wasted in the first place by shopping smarter), feeding hungry people is the next most-preferred strategy in the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. The day’s second panel, on Food Recovery, focused on ways to get good food that may otherwise be wasted on to the plates of hungry people safely and legally. The panel, which was moderated by Brandi Clark Burton from the City of Austin, opened with a presentation from Nicole Civita, who is the director of the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Three major obstacles for those looking to divert food waste by donating it to the hungry are perceived illegality (as there are laws governing food donations), a resistance to putting in extra effort, and the risk of legal trouble or reputation should someone become ill from donated food. But according to Nicole, the laws regarding food donations- although they differ from state to state- are actually pretty accommodating and protect most food donors from liability if they’re following the right procedures (you can see the rest of her presentation on food recovery and the law here). Vince Delisi from Travis County Health & Human Services gave a complementary talk about the importance of food safety when deciding what to donate and getting food from its sources to the people who need it. So when a grocery store has determined that a batch of produce isn’t fit for sale, but is legal to donate and still safe to eat, where does that produce go? Here in Austin, the Capital Area Food Bank serves as a hub for food recovery, as well as nutrition education and connecting diverse communities across Central Texas. According to Bethany Carney, the Food Bank’s food sourcing supervisor, the Capital Area Food Bank works with 300 partner agencies in 21 counties and recovered 16 million pounds of food in 2014 alone! Bethany emphasized the fact that the food bank sees food recovery as an integral part of its mission and will likely source about half of its donations from recovered food within the next couple of years. Russell Cavin, volunteer and director of special events for Keep Austin Fed echoed that point as he stressed the importance of reducing waste and engaging with businesses and other community members while simultaneously providing food to hungry folks. Environmental engineer Stephen Sturdivant wrapped up the panel with an overview of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s initiatives and resources regarding food recovery in addition to food prevention (and even composting!). His advice? If you want to see your local businesses taking steps to end food waste, tell them! There are plenty of resources out there for embracing the principles of zero waste in the foodservice industry, but it’ll take a little effort from consumers to nudge their favorite businesses in the right direction.

Over lunch, we were treated to a presentation by Ethan Welty, urban foraging expert and co-founder of Falling Fruit. Falling Fruit is an incredibly cool idea- an interactive, open-source map of the world’s fruit trees and other edible plants. The idea is to empower people to look to nature for food, even if they’re located in dense urban areas. It’s all about forming a connection with the Earth- and scoring some free fruit straight from the branch. The website itself is open to contributions from anyone willing to map their neighborhood trees or translate some pages into Spanish, making it a true hub for both connecting with like-minded people around the world and putting good food to good use in the areas that need it most.

Our CEO (that’s Compost Education Officer, by the way), Dustin, was invited to participate in the third panel of the day. This panel, as you probably could have guessed, was all about post-consumer food waste management. Although it’s best to reduce food waste at the source and donate excess food as much as possible, some things- expired produce, scraps like coffee grounds and eggshells- will still slip through the system. That’s why we’re working closely with the City of Austin to make composting as easy, accessible, and efficient as possible. Austin Resource Recovery’s Aiden Cohen introduced the much-discussed Universal Recycling Ordinance, as well as some of the hurdles the URO hopes to overcome- including the fact that organic scraps currently make up about 32.4% of Austin’s trash. And Aiden also gave us what may be the quote of the day: “Organic materials should feed people, animals, and/or microbes- not landfills.”

Next up was Austin’s Food Policy Manager Edwin Marty, whose presentation was about a subject very near and dear to our hearts: how urban agriculture can play a role in diverting food waste. Urban farms and gardens can grow smarter- based on demand and careful planning- in order to eliminate waste at its source. They can also use scraps to feed animals and build and use compost. Edwin hopes to implement programs at the city level to help make composting easier, cheaper and more effective for urban growers. This may include more education, zoning changes, financial incentives, or help with purchasing technology that aids in breaking down scrapple (or, of course, partnering with the Pedallers!). Although there isn’t a specific road map for this yet, it’s clear that Edwin and his colleagues are important allies of our city’s growers and composters.

Speaking of compost, did you know that chickens are essentially little composters? Michelle Hernandez, president of the Urban Poultry Association of Texas (which runs the Funky Chicken Coop Tour), showed us how raising chickens in the backyard can be an excellent way to put food scraps to good use (and enjoy some fresh, free eggs for breakfast). According to Michelle, about 3100 households in Austin currently have chickens- and these   chickens divert over 2 million pounds of food scraps annually!                                                                                                                                                 

But for those of us who may not have the time or backyard space for these composting critters, community composting is a wonderful way of putting our scraps to good use. This was the subject of Dustin’s presentation- the Compost Pedallers’ Earth-friendly, calorie-torching compost hauling model that connects food system stakeholders and keeps resources within neighborhoods. Although Dustin acknowledged the importance of source reduction and food recovery, he encouraged the audience to the think of compost- made up of stuff that we previously may have put in a landfill- as an asset. Compost benefits soil in countless ways and is therefore essential to a healthy network of urban agriculture here in Austin. Since a community garden plot can provide a family with between $500 and $2,000 worth of produce in a single year, it’s clear that supporting these green spaces is an important component of creating a food-secure community. Dustin also touched on the role of community composting in the city’s future. Our current model revolves around what Dustin called the “Organics Smart Grid”- small, self-sufficient districts where compost is biked straight from your home to the nearest CompHost, which manages its composting system as independently as possible. Dustin sees a future in which community composting in this way coexists with a central, industrial composting system- or in his words, he hopes we can “keep everything as local as possible and centralize all the rest.” In closing, Dustin gave a shout-out to our awesome commercial members, reminding the audience that although only 3% of businesses in Austin compost today, 100% will have to by 2019.

As the audience split up into breakout sessions, it was clear that we were surrounded by some of the best and brightest in the movement to reduce food waste. We’re so honored to have been included in this event, and so proud of our city for its support of both the Forum and progressive food policy in general. Big changes are happening in our food system, and the best part is that there’s plenty of space for everyone to get involved.

One of the Zero Food Waste Forum’s overarching themes was this idea of a closed-loop system. As far as food goes, there really isn’t such a thing as “away” or “end of life”. Food travels in a cycle, and all of it can be given a second life. There’s really no need to waste food at all- and thanks to the people we met on Friday, eliminating food waste is possible.

Huge thanks to the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, Jordan Figueiredo, Austin Resource Recovery and City of Austin Office of Sustainability for having us out! It was great talking with you guys- and our amazing fellow panelists- and we hope to see you next year!

Lauren is the Compost Pedallers' Communications Intern. She's also a Geography student at the University of Texas at Austin who's really into words, kind of obsessed with dogs, and seriously enthusiastic about coffee.